President Berkman: Nine years of looking through a prism towards student success

By Regan Reeck

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Much like the tropical plant that sits in the corner of his office, its foliage nearly the same shade of pink as his tie, President Ronald M. Berkman is a transplant to this city. Having spent much of his professional life in New York, working at both Brooklyn College and City University of New York, he moved on to the Florida International University in 1997.  Making the considerable move nearly a decade ago from the beaches of Miami to the seemingly eternally chilled city of Cleveland — perhaps the plant is a reminder for the New Jersey born educator of a warmer climate.  Settling in, he has, for the past nine years served as the 6th president of Cleveland State University, and this is where he intends to stay.

The role of university president is, as defined by Boyd Yarbrough, dean of students at Cleveland State, both “really simple and really complex.” Yarbrough continues on to say, “He has the ultimate responsibility to lead the institution and do everything in his power that’s in the best interest of Cleveland State. He has to look at the collective, single goal of what is in the best interest of Cleveland State.”

In an effort to uphold this ideal, Berkman has decided that on June 20, 2018, he will retire from his role and serve his last day as president at CSU.

“It truly was a decision based on what I felt would be best for the university,” Berkman said. “I could’ve stayed another year, could’ve finished it out but I feel like you reach a time in the life of organizations, and the life of universities, when it is more useful to make a transition.”

Echoing a conversation about Robert De Niro that Berkaman recently had with a Cleveland journalist, he describes the city like a little New York — his twisting of the words giving away his place of upbringing. When asked what made him move 1,200 miles across the country from Miami to Cleveland and accept the presidency here, he said he saw it as a chance to explore the ideas that he had been developing throughout his career.

“I was looking for an opportunity, or an opportunity came looking for me to have a presidency at an urban university,” Berkman said. “I’ve worked at urban universities before, but Cleveland State was different in how it felt and how it was woven really completely into the fabric of downtown.”

The president’s tenure at CSU has been filled with numerous feats and accomplishments, one of the first being his desire to create what he refers to as a laboratory for students with what opportunities unique to Cleveland. In this laboratory, he saw students being given the chance to apply their in-class learning to what they would experience outside of the campus’ grounds. He took the borders of CSU and stretched them into the heart of downtown Cleveland. Partnering with Playhouse Square to house the theater and dance departments, moving the art department from an outdated factory to the Middough Building and building the Campus International School for a younger generation, are a few of the  endless possibilities he saw that Cleveland had to offer to his students.

He  has been complimented on his persistent gaze into the future of the university and also on his attention to the needs and wants of his students.

A sophomore, double majoring in film and music, Martin Barnard,  has a unique perspective on President Berkman. Barnard also acts as an At-Large Senator within the Student Government Association and acts as a representative for the entire student body at CSU. Within this position he involved himself with the 1964 society at Cleveland State and he was able to see for himself the commitment Berkman has to his students, even going so far to call him admirable.

“He has this whole plan laid out for many years to come, and that takes true dedication to the campus,” Barnard said. “You really need to dedicate yourself to student success in order to really plan ahead for their success in the future —which can’t be seen right now — so that’s something admirable about this man, for the past 10 years he’s kind of the one who listens to the students needs, and he’s very receptive to them.”

Mirroring the sentiment, Yarbrough has also personally seen Berkman’s commitment to the students of CSU.

“Talking about a student’s perspective first,” Yarbrough said, “I think President Berkman leads with that in virtually every decision he makes, in fact he’s frequently asking, ‘What impact will this have on students if we do X?’”

Despite his successes and dedication to his students, Berkman has experienced his fair share of criticism regarding some of his decisions during his presidency, and he freely admits that he might have possibly done some things differently if given the chance — the hurried shift from four to three credits that led to a vote of no confidence by the faculty senate in 2013 for example.

“I really feel [motivated] when it comes to students’ success,” Berkman said. “I really felt an urgency about things, but from the student’s perspective. It did, in retrospect, engender a period of tension between myself and the faculty.”

Berkman noted that the shift in credit hours allowed credits to be transferred more easily from university to university and was done partly to give students the opportunity to transfer in the future if they so choose. This paired with CSU’s delay in switching to a semester system were among the reasons the president decided to push forward so quickly with the change in credit hours.
When asked about matters such as the private flight from Cleveland to Columbus and the highly scrutinized issue of his personal residence, Berkman took the time to explain the reasoning behind his decisions.

Named chair on the Inter-University Council of Ohio by Governor John Kasich, he found himself caught between a request to meet for a press conference celebrating the nomination by the governor and a long scheduled meeting with the Cleveland Foundation for a grant to build the Northeast Ohio Medical University (Neo-Med) building, he made a choice.

“This is what people don’t realize as well, is we, Cleveland State University, managed to get funding from the state for thirty-five additional seats in the medical school in the year in which everything in higher education was being cut by 10 to 14 percent,” Berkman said. “I didn’t want to waste six months with Neo-Med.”

The only option to reschedule the grant hearing was six months later, and on September 27, 2013, the  the president chose to take a private flight costing $9,550.

“That’s part of the baggage, how one decision, one flight, in a span of nine years continues to recur,” Berkman said. “They mentioned it with the Plain Dealer and with Crain’s [Cleveland Business newspaper], and it’s okay, it was a decision I thought was best for the university.”

As for the controversy over his house, he was initially hesitant to discuss it, but opened up a short time later. His current home in Shaker Heights was purchased by the Cleveland Foundation for $800,000 in 2016, and is the third residence since his time at CSU.  

“I really would have liked for the downtown solution [at The 9] to have worked, if it would have been reasonable, provided the right amenities to entertain and to have something representative of the university,” said Berkman. “You can’t replicate a sense of place in an apartment. Two weeks ago we had a hundred people at the house and, for whatever reason, people feel good about being invited to the presidential house, I think it’s a university asset.” 
He firmly expressed his dedication and sensitivity to the varied and often difficult financial situations of Cleveland State’s students — which has been questioned both by outside critics as well as some within CSU.

“I’m really very conscious and sensitive to the financial situations of students, because it was me when I was in college,” Berkman said.  “Something that I say often is — you are me — the students here are on the same journey I was on.”

Barnard recounts older students pointing to the attention the president gave to the needs of students.

“He’s the reason the Student Center is what it is today because before this, it was some sort of concrete block — it wasn’t very attractive — it wasn’t the hub that it is today. So you can thank our president for that, because he saw what the students needed to build this school into — an accredited state university —instead of just a commuters campus that could be confused with a community college.”

When asked what among his accomplishments he is most proud of, Berkman responds without a moment of hesitation. His response was a sentiment that became familiar over the course of the interview, Berkman said seeing more and more students being able to walk across the stage and graduate is what he’s most proud of. He sees then, directly, the impact his efforts and the efforts of his faculty and staff have on students. The students here have generated their own success but have been helped by the resources and opportunities that Cleveland State offers. From the Engage: The Campaign for Cleveland State University that exceeded its goal to raise $100 million  for student scholarships and support of the building of both the Washkewicz College of Engineering and the future film school in Idea Center, the president has been instrumental in the growth and expansion of these opportunities.

Knowing his retirement is fast approaching, Berkman has reflected on his time here at Cleveland State and after a one year sabbatical, plans on returning to the university to teach. Lamenting light heartedly at the loss of his parking pass, Berkman pushed once again the future of Cleveland State to the forefront of the conversation.

“We set a lot things in motion and we started on a launch pad and I think we’ve had take-off since then,” Berkman said. “We’re not on the launchpad anymore. We’ve gone into orbit.”

Perhaps not as exciting as landing on the moon, Berkman nonetheless sees a bright future for the university.

“We’re really in a strong period of ascent right now, and I think that will produce a really good candidate,” he said.

When asked what advice he would offer to his successor, continually looking towards the future, he brought forth again a message aimed directly at the needs and success of the students at Cleveland State.

“When you think about what you’re going to do, the first prism you ought to look through is the eyes of the students, that ought to be the first stop in whether this is a good idea,” Berkman said.

He advises his successor to ask one question.

“‘Is this a good idea for students?’ and I think if you can do that, I think you’re asking the right question first,” he said.

His time here has been marked both by remarkable successes and some disparagement, but in an attempt to fully and completely fulfill his role as president of the university, Berkman has given Cleveland State a legacy. Seen in the multitudes of students wearing ‘Cleveland State’ emblazoned across their chests and heard by Yarbrough from the residents of Cleveland itself —Berkman has reinvigorated and allowed us to be prideful in a university built by Cleveland, for Cleveland.

“They talk about being kind of an unknown university,” said Yarbrough. “One that probably did great things but they just didn’t know about them, turned into something that they’re quite proud of, to be able to say that’s our university. I think that’s his greatest legacy.”